New history of SBTS chronicles institution’s comeback story

Communications Staff — June 17, 2009

In late 1879, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was as good as dead.

A post-Civil War financial panic left the school’s donor base unable—and in some cases unwilling—to fulfill pledges to fund the fledgling institution’s endowment.

To prop up the school, founding President James Petigru Boyce had bled dry his own financial resources and maxed out willing creditors in borrowing money to pay faculty salaries.

Southern moved to Louisville from Greensville, S.C., in hopes that a fresh start would change things. It made them worse.

Boyce and fellow founder John Albert Broadus, who would become the seminary’s second president, began to pray that God would provide a single donor whose means and generosity would set the school immediately on solvent ground.

God raised up such a man in former Georgia governor, railroad president and U.S. senator Joseph E. Brown; his $50,000 donation toward the endowment saved the seminary and gave it a solid financial footing for years to come.

Southern Seminary’s 150-year history is a story of God’s sustaining grace in the face of adversity, one which Gregory A. Wills tells with striking detail in the newly-released seminary history, “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009” (Oxford University Press). Wills serves as professor of church history at Southern, and he is director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Wills’ work is the first full-length history of Southern Seminary since William A. Mueller’s “A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” published in 1959 to commemorate the seminary’s 100th anniversary.

In researching the 566-page volume, Wills mined more than one million pages of primary sources and the result is a history with remarkable depth, one that is also both delightfully readable and captivating.

Wills shows how the seminary stayed afloat during the difficult years following the Civil War largely through the indefatigable leadership of Boyce. The seminary survived financial controversy, but also overcame theological controversy in the 1879 resignation/firing of professor C.H. Toy who embraced and began to teach theological liberalism.

Southern’s battle for theological fidelity was just beginning.

After the founders valiantly fought it, the seminary at last succumbed to theological liberalism in the early 19th century during the years of E.Y. Mullins’ presidency.

Liberalism held the institution captive for much of the 20th century, as Wills shows in detail. But Southern found liberation and rediscovered its confessional heritage in the early 1990s following the election of current President R. Albert Mohler Jr.

“One thing I hope (readers will) appreciate is the critical importance of theological education to a denomination and conjointly the critical importance of the soundness of theological seminaries,” Wills said.

“I certainly hope they will recognize the heroic character of the founding faculty’s labors and sacrifices and identify with them in such a way that they will be similarly ambitious for Kingdom work and Kingdom institutions.”

Wills said Southern’s story is filled with heroes such as Boyce who fought valiantly and gave their lives for both the financial and theological wellbeing of the seminary. The new book unfolds their story with clarity and power.

“The founding faculty are all heroes,” Wills said. “They struggled and suffered heroically for the survival of the seminary. I say in the book that was a heroic age, and I don’t mean it metaphorically.”

As he completed the work, Wills says he began to realize that Southern has, throughout its history, exercised a profound influence on its parent denomination. This influence helped preserve theological orthodoxy in the Southern Baptist Convention particularly during the denomination’s nascent years.

“I was surprised by just how important the seminary has been to the Southern Baptist Convention,” Wills said. “I knew that it was important, but I came away convinced that it had a deeper, more wide-reaching influence than I expected to find.

“I am convinced that one of the basic reasons that our denomination remained as conservative as it did was that Boyce and the other SBC leaders who established the school established it for the preservation of orthodoxy and erected a standard of sound biblical teaching which became a cornerstone against which subsequent theological developments were measured.”

Towers Online will publish a full interview with Wills on Thursday.

(Staff writer David Roach contributed to this story)

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